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Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) commonly referred to as one syndrome and also known as “wet brain,” is a combination diagnosis–that of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis.

How You Get WKS

WKS is caused by a thiamine or vitamin B1 deficiency. It is most often a diagnosis secondary to alcohol abuse, especially in malnourished, chronic alcoholic patients since regular, excessive alcohol consumption interferes with thiamine absorption. It is not is not caused by excessive alcohol intake killing brain cells as many people seemingly think.

WKS is also seen in patients who do not drink alcohol but have had had gastric stapling, extended periods of time on intravenous fluids without vitamin B1 supplements, and those on hunger strikes.

WKS Stages and Symptoms

There are two stages of WKS. The first stage is Wernicke’s encephalopathy caused by thiamine deficiency and often precipitated by a high sugar intake. If treated immediately, it can be reversed.If it goes untreated, Wernicke’s encephalopathy progresses to the second stage of wet brain called Korsakoff’s psychosis, which cannot be reversed; however, the symptoms can improve if treated.

Patients are diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome by clinical evaluation, including a neuropsychological assessment. Wet brain has a sudden onset of symptoms, including:

  • Impaired memory or change in mental status. Patients often suffer from confusion, apathy and poor concentration.
  • Vision changes. Patients experience nystagmus, or involuntary eye movements and eye muscle paralysis.
  • Ataxia, or an unsteady stance and staggering gait
  • Other symptoms include: stupor, hypotension or low blood pressure, tachycardia or fast heart rate, hypothermia or a low body temperature, epileptic seizures, hearing loss, confabulation or remembering events that never happened and slurred speech, even when sober

Treatment for Wet Brain

WKS demands emergency treatment, which includes thiamine administration and quitting drinking. While it will not reverse the damage that has occurred, it can reduce the severity of the symptoms, if given as soon as the diagnosis is suspected.

How to Prevent Wet Brain

The best way to prevent WKS is to do the following:

  • Limit alcohol to a moderate intake
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Take thiamine supplements if recommended by a physician

More Interesting Facts About WKS

As tragic as the disease is, there are some interesting numbers attached to it:

  • Only 20% of cases are diagnosed before death
  • 25% of cases require extended care in a long-term healthcare institution
  • 75% of cases suffer permanent brain damage

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a tragic result of chronic alcohol abuse. No one ever fully recovers from WKS. It must be treated at the first signs of the disease and taken very seriously.

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